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Peter Mallory's Blog

By pmallory - Posted on 30 October 2014

21 October 2014

[Unfortunately, this blog relies heavily on images, sadly missing in this archive. If this subject really interests you, contact me directly.]

Here is a speech I gave to the Beverly Hills Rotary Club on October 6, 2014 in anticipation of the arrival of . . .

My good friend Daniel James Brown will be here in Beverly Hills this coming weekend as a part of your One Book One City – A Community Reading Event. As most of you know, he is the author of The Boys in the Boat, which has taken the world by storm during the last year. He tells me he is really looking forward to his visit to your city, and I am honored to perform today as his warm-up act.

On July 4, 1862, a mathematician, amateur photographer and writer, the Reverend Charles Dodgson, rowed in a boat up the Isis River near Oxford in England with the three young daughters of Henry Liddell, the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University. There was Lorina, aged 13, Alice, aged 10, and Edith, aged 8.

Dodgson’s boat journey began at Folly Bridge near Oxford and ended five miles upstream, a good two hours of hard rowing at a steady pace, at the locks near the village of Godstow.

During the trip the Reverend told his young companions a tale that featured a bored little girl who goes looking for adventure. The girls loved the story, and Alice asked Dodgson to please write it down for her. He began the manuscript the next morning.

What was that British gentleman doing rowing a loaded boat over a pretty long distance on that fine day 150 years ago? The fact is that, to quote The Wind in the Willows, everyone who was anyone in Britain back then “messed about in boats.” Here are Mole and Rat embarking upon a similar journey. Throughout the 19th Century, rowing along the Thames and its tributaries was often the most efficient, practical and pleasant way to get from here to there.

Why do I mention this particular boat trip? The man published his fanciful story three years later under the pen name of Lewis Carroll, and it was about a girl who disappeared down a rabbit hole.

In the sequel, Alice entered a Looking Glass World, a backwards world . . .

and I suggest to you that history has demonstrated that the sport of rowing also dwells in a Looking Glass World. For 200 years now, culture after culture in both hemispheres have seen reflections of themselves as they peered into that mirror.

Rowing as leisure pursuit and soon competitive sport was actually invented at the end of the 18th Century at Eton College in England,

arguably the most storied secondary school in world history. Over the centuries, its alumni have included six martyrs of the English Reformation, twenty-four foreign princes, kings and maharajahs, three archbishops, one signatory of the American Declaration of Independence, numerous British generals and field marshals and nineteen British prime ministers, as well as world-renowned scientists and men of letters including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Aldous Huxley.

Here is an interesting story about the young Shelley during his days at Eton. Not exactly fitting the “man’s man” boarding school ideal, the future poet was subject to considerable hazing.

In order to escape from persecution by other boys, he often “would plunge down Brocas Lane, dodge the curved beaks of boats under repair in a little crowded builder’s yard, scamper down a rickety staircase on a single plank that ran out into the river, undo the rope that held a skiff to the rail, jump in and shove off.”

Among Eton Old Boys are such fictional characters as Captain James Hook of the pirate ship Jolly Roger, Commander James Bond of the British Secret Service, and Bertram Wilberforce Wooster of the Drones Club of London in the Jeeves novels of P.G. Wodehouse.

Incidentally, the actor who played Bertie on British TV in the early 1990s, Hugh Laurie, was a world rowing medalist during his years at Eton. His father was an Olympic Rowing Champion in 1948, and at the 1936 Olympics he rowed against The Boys in the Boat.

In the late 18th Century, Etonians did an extraordinary thing. They converted a centuries-old profession requiring back-breaking physical exertion, the purview of lower-class laborers – Here is the inaugural masthead of The Illustrated London News showing the city in 1842,

and it includes at least 40 boats powered by artisan watermen manning oars – Etonians converted the very hard work of rowing into an enormously pleasurable activity for the children of the British landed gentry . . . and soon for the gentry themselves. Extraordinary, and almost without precedent in social history!

Here again is that early19th Century view of the commercial rowing facilities immediately adjacent to the Eton College campus, there to service the heavy boat traffic between Windsor Castle, the royal summer residence just across the river from Eton, and London 30 miles downstream, and here is a rendering of gentleman’s rowing of just a few years later from a vantage point not a quarter of a mile downstream from the previous image, with Windsor Castle in the background. Two different worlds, side by side, cheek by jowl, as it were.

The principles inherent in rowing were embraced by the British upper class as embodying their elitist social values. The most widely-read and respected British rowing manual of the day stated: “The discipline to which an oarsman subjects himself is a salutary one, and the patience, self-denial, and endurance which he cultivates are qualities that cannot fail to prove useful to him in any walk of life. From a moral point of view, the need of harmony and self-subordination has no small influence on character. Rowing has taught many a man in a practical way ‘his duty to his neighbor,’ and in the brotherhood of the oar some of our greatest statesmen, divines, and lawyers have learned lessons to which they owe not a little of their success in after life.”

Indeed, rowing embodied the core values of BRITISH ELITISM.

But history has taught us that the sport of rowing has been attractive to many diverse cultures, and some that make rather strange bedfellows with British aristocrats.

Ironically, during the 20th Century, rowing was embraced with equal fervor by the totalitarian National Socialist Party in 1930s Germany as the embodiment of martial discipline.

Here is the German men’s coxless-four giving their Führer the Nazi salute after winning the Gold Medal in their event at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In fact, Germany won five of the seven events held there, and they were second and third in the two they didn’t win outright.

The love affair of German governments with sport in general and rowing in particular began earlier in the 20th Century with Kaiser Wilhelm II. Here is a photo of the 1906 German Rowing Championships held on the Langer See in Berlin-Grünau.

(Incidentally, note the twin-towered building in the background. Thirty years later Berlin-Grünau will be the site of the 1936 Olympic rowing.) The German national rowing federation was tasked with recruiting German youth and instilling in them nationalism and patriotism, punctuality and discipline, abolishing social ranking and building character.

What makes rowing so special . . . and nearly unique in international sport . . . is the complete absence of stars who stand out and the complete subservience of individual to team . . . and this perfectly served to further the German government policy of reinforcing unfaltering obedience to the Kaiser . . . and later to the Führer.

German rowing clubs included pre-military instruction in the training of their young rowers: swimming, forest running, negotiating obstacles, even military drill. 30,000 German oarsmen served in World War I, and 4,000 earned the Iron Cross for valor.

For Germany, rowing embodied the core values of GERMAN MILITARISM.

After the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, their approach to sport was copied and improved upon by the Soviet Union and its satellites. They gave rowing a special place in their sports hierarchy because of its embodiment of the communist values of comradeship and striving for the common good.

Here’s a quote: “The achievement of high performance in competitive rowing for men, women and youths, is based on a wide membership, on comprehensive and systematic basic training, and on a party and class-conscious education of the oarsman into a socialist sports personality.

Indeed, the sport of rowing represented an ideal metaphor for the collectivized state model of society.

For the countries behind the Iron Curtain, rowing embodied the core values of SOVIET PROLETARIANISM.

Likewise, America also peered into the Looking Glass World of Rowing and saw itself.

Ed Leader, Coach of the University of Washington beginning in 1916 and Yale during the 1920s and ‘30s, wrote: “For the college undergraduate, it is a long, toilsome journey to a seat in a Varsity shell, but in that long journey the boy learns several things. He learns how feeble is individual effort and how strong is united effort. He learns the value of team work in the sport which requires it in far greater degree than any other sport the American takes part in. He finds he must often give up individual rights and desires for the benefit of all concerned.

“He must have the true spirit of cooperation if he is ever to become a real part of any first rate crew, and to my mind there is no denying the fact that some of this spirit on a widespread scale, giving up of petty individual rights and desires for the benefit of all concerned, would go some distance toward solving a great many of the world’s problems.”

For the United States, rowing embodied the core values of AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM.

Which brings us to the reason I have been invited to address this august body at this particular moment. In just a few days, my good friend Daniel James Brown will arrive in Beverly Hills to discuss his book, The Boys in the Boat, concerning nine exceptional young men who achieved manhood in the crucible of the Great Depression . . . and they did it through rowing.

Don Hume, Joe Rantz, Shorty Hunt, Stub McMillen, Johnny White, Gordy Adam, Chuck Day, Roger Morris and coxswain Bobby Moch.

And here is their coach, Al Ulbrickson.

The finish of their 1936 Olympic final was a race for the Ages: after 2,000 meters, the U.S. perhaps five feet ahead of Italy, who had only a couple of feet on Germany. I will leave the rest of the story to Dan, but notice the same twin-towered building in the background. Unfortunately, this building no longer exists.

British Elitism, German Militarism, Soviet Proletarianism, American Exceptionalism. All these cultures have seen reflections of themselves as they peered into the Looking Glass World that is rowing.

To return for a moment to where we began,

I leave you with the haunting Through the Looking Glass sculpture on the grounds of Guilford Castle, where Lewis Carroll often strolled when he wasn’t messing about in boats.

Thank you for your attention. I would be happy to entertain any questions.